Movement ecology

It’s been a while since I’ve written in the blog. Life has engulfed my family with many changes and challenges: we are expecting an addition this spring, my oldest has started school, my youngest has gotten really involved in dance and painting. I’ve gone through an emergency surgery during the first trimester. The garden beckoned with its bounty to be harvested and structures being prepared for winter. Two children’s birthdays and Halloween have been celebrated, and now I have a craft fair to prepare for. Boredom does not get a foothold.

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking podcast by Katy Bowman, and realized I  have to write about it. Katy takes the discussion on nutritious movement further to the concept of movement ecology. The core idea is that if you don’t have to move to achieve something, someone else does/did/will have to. As an example, Katy uses making tea with tea bags versus tea leaves: it takes more effort to steep tea leaves and strain the tea than it does to throw a tea bag into a cup and pour water on it. Someone had to put the leaves in the bag (whether that it was done by people or machinery) and package them in order for us not to have to. Someone had to invent, test, and manufacture the first tea bag. We can take that example further to the need to grow and harvest the tea leaves. The fact that we don’t have to means that someone else did.

manWalking600

The movement required to achieve a task may involve people, animals, machinery, inventions. It can span years or even centuries — something that has been invented over a 100 years ago is simplifying our lives today, sparing us the movements needed to achieve the same task without the helpful invention. Before we could take a train, thousands of people had to move to invent, perfect, and build the engines, the stations and the railroads. Without their movements, we would have to ride horses and carriages. Without people who moved to build carriages and raise horses, we would have to walk.

If we look at movement from this standpoint, we can see what movements we are NOT doing. If you are using a stroller, you are not carrying your baby. If you are using a baby carrier, you are engaging your body differently than if you were carrying your baby in your arms. The baby gets a different load on their tissues and bones based on how they are carried. In the modern Western society and its nuclear families, we have to resort to carriers or strollers, as we cannot possibly be holding the baby 24/7 in our arms — we need to eat, sleep, take care of ourselves and other family members. In other societies, multiple adults might be holding the baby letting the mother take care of other needs, or the baby might be riding on a mother’s hip in a carrier all through the day as she goes about her work, or the baby might be stuck in a crib for a large part of the day. In every case, the loads on the mother’s body and the baby’s body are affected by various devices, family structure and needs, work and home requirements. In every case, the movement our bodies go through are affected by movement done or not done by someone or something else. Someone had to invent a stroller, create it, test it, package and market it, ship it to a store, thus allowing us to use it to avoid the need to hold the baby in our arms for long periods of time.

We can buy food at a grocery store or we can grow our own in a garden. First task would involve driving/walking/cycling to a store, picking out food, paying for it, and getting back home. Second task would involve multiple activities of tilling, mulching, weeding, bending, squatting, seeding, planting, watering, harvesting. Both ways work to get the end product. The movement involved in either is different. In order for us to be able to get food at the store, someone else had to do all the movement involved in growing food and getting it into the store for us to find. They might have done it by hand, with tools or machines. There was movement done by someone else involved in creating, building, and selling the machines or tools. If we are not walking to the store, we’d take into account the movements needed to create our vehicle, infrastructure to support it, activities needed to maintain and fuel it, all done by other people throughout many years.

Once we realize what movements ultimately need to be done to achieve any task and realize how much of those movements we are outsourcing, we can consciously choose which tasks we still want outsourced and which we’d rather perform ourselves. Getting food from a store requires certain movements. Growing food provides a variety of different movements that shape our bodies differently and provide a different life experience. Which is more important to you — saving time needed to acquire food for other movements or fully embracing all the movements that come with growing food?

Cooking is another good example — there is a wide range of acquiring a meal: takeout, warming up a packaged meal, eating a raw meal, cooking from partially-ready ingredients, or preparing your ingredients by hand from raw materials (think grinding your own flour). If you don’t need to grind your flour or milk a cow to acquire milk, someone else had to perform those movements. Are you willing to grind the spices by hand and make curry from scratch? It takes varied movement, creates a more flavourful meal and engages the body in seldom-used motions. It does, however, take more time. Do you really want something? Are you willing to maximize the movement required to get it? Are you willing to walk to a store to get raw foods, then prepare the ingredients, then create a meal? Do you want that meal bad enough? All these questions we can consider within the framework of movement ecology.

This post is barely scratching the surface — there are so many implications to consider, and I’m looking forward to Katy’s new book Movement Matters (coming out in mid-November) that talks about movement ecology in more depth. The more we think about sustainability, natural movement, the way our lifestyles affect our movement and thus our health, the more obvious it is that these questions need to be considered on more than a personal level. We need to think of movements within groups of people and their impact on the world.

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Spend your money wisely on Black Friday

I dislike the traditional markers of Black Friday, when crowds of people crash through the doors without a care for injuring each other, to snap up deals on cheap, poorly-made consumer items they often don’t need, only to throw them away within a couple of years, to repeat this again and again. It wastes resources, chisels away at our humanity, and does not make anyone truly happy.

There are organizations calling for a 24-hour no-shopping strike during Black Friday, but that seems pointless. 24 hours will not solve the issue. It also is wasteful for those of us with children, because this might be the only time we can afford to get them cloth diapers, baby carriers, good quality clothing and footwear (and that’s important at -30°C here in winter), shampoo that’s not full of toxins, and toys that are not plastic junk.

blackFridayLove

So I say: rethink Black Friday. Don’t shop large retailers unless you are buying exactly what you need. Instead, focus on small and local businesses, handmade gifts, products made with natural materials and ingredients by caring people. If you are buying gifts for this holiday season, make each one meaningful, and support businesses that enrich your local or mental space.

In that spirit, do visit Etsy. Many artisan shops are having sales. Through my store, Veddma Creations, from now through Monday, I am offering 20% OFF all purchases, Buy-one-get-one-free deals on Blessingway beads, pregnancy tracking necklaces, and keychains, plus a free pregnancy tracking necklace for all orders over $99.

Black Friday Specials at Veddma Creations Etsy Store
There are also lots of wonderful toys on sale right now. 2016 TRUCE Toy Guide (by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) differentiates toys that foster creative play and those that stifle children’s imagination. Wooden stacking toys, construction blocks, Waldorf play silks, art supplies, play kitchens, workshops, puzzles are great. Many of them can be found on Etsy, many others – on Amazon, such as the wooden castle blocks by Treehous I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Some other small retailers that are having sales right now are:
Bumbini cloth diaper company
Wraps at Birdie’s Room
Little Yeti shoes

When you do shop large retailers, do it in a smart way. Find out what you need, and focus on that. For instance, Osh Kosh Canada is having 30% off sale + $10 coupon + free shipping on sales over $50. This is an opportunity to buy cotton underwear and pajamas at a substantial discount. When you have multiple children, it does add up.

Look for coupons and get cash back by going through ebates.ca (or ebates.com in the US). It’s not much, but it adds up, and during the Black Friday sales the percentages you can earn are higher.

Well.ca has lots of good sales on natural products. For instance, our favourite Baby Boo Shampoo is 40% off and Nutiva coconut oil 1.6L is $35.69. If you are new to Well.ca, you can get $10 off a $40 purchase if you use coupon code VEDDMA2015 (and it takes $29 to get free shipping). Since we usually buy some of our body care and food staples from Well.ca, it make sense to buy them now, when the prices are lowered.

There is an extensive list of Canadian Black Friday sales.

Through all the frenzy and encouragement from the outside to shop-shop-shop, take a deep breath. Think of what you truly need and what your family would enjoy. Set a budget for each category: food staples, children’s clothing and footwear, toys, books. Pay attention to quality over quantity. It is better to get one great gift with lots of use potential or replay value, than get many cheap, poorly-made trinkets that break or lie forgotten, cluttering up your physical and mental space.

Appreciate the opportunity to cherish beautiful items and support people in your community. Anticipate the joy of sharing the gifts with your loved ones. Enjoy the possibilities and let go of the stress.

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Choose what to remember

How often do we share an event with someone else, only to discover in a conversation later that our perceptions of it are significantly different? Where some see a traumatic experience or an insult, others find a lesson or a conversation that’s not worth remembering. You can take what you value from an experience or an interaction, leaving behind the negativity and emotional baggage of others.

smilingWomanInTheRain

In social situations, we interact with many people who may be passionate, harsh, insincere, expressing intense emotions, raising difficult questions, or trying to stir up our negative feelings. Most interesting people are often very complex. Many activists, for instance, have strong, unforgiving standpoints and are very firm in sticking to their guns without a care that it might hurt or offend someone else. Some people are harsh yet brilliant, and while appreciating their commentary from an intellectual standpoint or valuing their contribution to a common cause, one needs to actively abstract away the other aspects of their personality, their non-constructive comments or personal remarks. Often, we can tell more about the state or character of the one asking a question or expressing an opinion than about the person whom that question or opinion is targeting.

Other people might flood you with a stream of consciousness, without filtering any of it out, expressing their perception of the world blended with assimilated perceptions of other people, all the while commenting on their own emotions and opinions. It takes energy and concentration to peel away the redundant and irrelevant layers to extract the gems of insight, if such are present. It is often educational to listen to such a flood of thoughts, however, as it closely follows the thinking process of the person expressing it. It is valuable to see how people form the opinions they hold and how their reactions are shaped by people and events around them.

Many of us have had a dream that was so vivid that it took a while to convince ourselves after awakening that we had not just lived through it in the real world. Our mind treats the experiences we have truly gone through and those we have imagined in detail as equally real, and the emotional response to either can be strong. As an empath, listening to someone’s emotional account of a situation, I tend to find myself slipping into their shoes and taking on their place in the narrative, along with their emotions and opinions. If I am not careful, after the encounter, the lingering emotions can shape my perception of reality in ways I do not intend. I have to consciously process the conversation and take away only what I find constructive.

As those of us who have gone through unmedicated labour and birth can attest, the challenges we go through during labour soon fade away, leaving behind the glorious oxytocin-induced feeling of birth being a wonderful, overwhelmingly-happy and empowering experience. Hormones help us there, ensuring our species does keep procreating. Our mind is selective in what to associate with birth and what to remember about it.

Similarly, we choose what to associate with and remember about people. My grandmother was quite ill for the last several years of her life. When I went overseas to see her, she lamented that I would remember her in this state, forever suffering. However, even before that, my mind has firmly associated her with the way she was in her early 60s when I was spending every weekend at her place. She has been shaped by captivity during the war, followed by harsh, cold years in the Russian North where she gave birth to her two children, then by settlement in a completely unfamiliar million-people city in the South-West, and the early tragic death of my grandfather just months after I was born. I will always remember her that way, because to me that is who she was — a strong, hard-working, wise woman, immensely loving, and fiercely devoted to her family and friends.

With any experience, real or imaginary, we choose how to interpret it, what to retain, and what to take to heart. We cannot always control what happens. Shape your reality by what you choose to remember.

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Break up your routine

We are creatures of habit. It is so easy to fall into repetitive familiar patterns and end up getting bored with your reality. So many of us get up, go through the motions of getting ready for the day, get the kids ready, follow the same work/eat/parent cycles, and end up turning to a familiar TV show or Facebook in the evening, to pass the time until sleep, only to start the same round of activities tomorrow. Needless to say, such a lifestyle does not spark creativity, make your days exciting, or have you looking forward to waking up in the morning.

Break Up Your Routine

Feeling locked into a routine? Break it up! The first step is the most difficult psychologically — we are inclined to fall into familiar patterns instead of venturing out into the unknown. Your routine will still be there tomorrow to lean on if you need it, so shake off its chains and take off on an adventure.

Here are some ideas:

Join a club: reading and discussing books, playing a sport, beading, crocheting, cooking, yoga, dance, exercise. You can learn a new skill and meet new people.

Try a new hobby: assemble a jigsaw puzzle, paint, dance, sing, play an instrument, draw, read, build models.

Undertake a project that interests you: you can try anything from robotics and technology to improving your house or garden. Anything that gets you excited about the process and the outcome is great.

Train for a marathon or another physical challenge: a friend of mine has just embarked on a 12-week course to restore her core strength and pelvic floor muscles postpartum, and she is finding that the entire family, including the dog, is enjoying the new activities. Take on a martial art, dare to try parcour, join a sports team, try belly dancing or zumba, or find a ping-pong partner — the possibilities to improve your physiology while having fun are numerous.

Expand your horizons: visit a gallery or a museum (great with kids), go to a concert or a play, attend a film screening. Look for independent films on a topic you are interested in, such as CHOICE! Film festival and you can connect with like-minded people and learn a lot.

Host a get-together: having people over can reset your energy. Arrange food (cook or do a potluck), drinks, and music, barbecue if the weather allows. Get-togethers are great to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a while. Learn what they are into lately — you might find a new exciting activity to join or re-kindle your passion for a forgotten hobby. If you want to make it more engaging, host a theme party.

Meet with friends for lunch or a playdate, at a pub or a cafe, for a parenting meeting, with or without kids.

Go for a walkstep outside your door and take in nature, breathe deeply. Sometimes all that’s needed to break the routine is to lift your head up from a repetitive activity and take a fresh look at your surroundings.

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The power of 15 minutes

Those of us who have been planning to organize the basement or clean the garage know how daunting the prospect of it is. We make it feel like a huge undertaking and keep putting it off, week after week. But you don’t have to dedicate 8-10 hours a day to a project to get it done. Instead, do a little every day and, before you know it, you will see significant progress.

Productive Zen Mama - The Power of 15 Minutes

Consider opportunity cost of what you are doing: what opportunities are you missing if you engage in a particular activity (such as surfing Facebook or watching TV)? Use that information not to instill guilt for choosing sub-optimally, but to motivate yourself to accomplish something of value to you.

Think of it this way: someone might come home and fall into their routine of watching TV for 3 hours. If you instead spend 15 minutes on your garden and 15 minutes exercising, leaving yourself 2.5 hours for other things, you are already ahead of the game. Add these efforts up throughout the week, and you will have a distinct result; whereas if you choose to just collapse on the couch upon getting home every day, you would be where you were a week ago, if not further away from your goal. Moreover, if you do dedicate a few minutes each to various endeavors, you’ll soon find that you’d rather do something productive than veg out, and you might also find that switching between different activities gives you more energy. You can then choose to spend this energy in other productive or relaxing ways.

Have you ever played The Sims? It’s so gratifying to arrange the furniture just so, to plan the garden, and to govern their lives. There is a sense of accomplishment as they keep their plants healthy, exercise regularly, and climb the skill ladder in sciences and arts by studying a bit every day. I used to love doing this. And then it hit me: if, instead of trying to achieve virtual goals by performing repetitive virtual tasks, I put my energy into achieving my own goals in real life, I might be more skilled in something that matters to me, in a few weeks. I never looked back, and playing Sims became meaningless: why simulate the same reality I can build in real life? I can get way more satisfaction from putting my mind and my hands to tangible projects.

Just as with The Sims, when you miss bill payments, exercise, study sessions, or maintenance tasks in real life, your skills deteriorate, belongings get repossessed, and neglected plants and fish die. Consistency is key. That doesn’t mean that your day must become a rigid routine of 15-minute tasks performed every day in the same sequence. It means that you can resolve to put a certain amount of time during the week into each project that currently excites you, find ways to make it fun and invite your family to join you when possible. With the growing sense of accomplishment, you wouldn’t want to go back to doing nothing. Instead, you’ll be excited to take the projects further and to start new ones in the future.

There are lots of things that can be done in 15 minutes to further your progress. Choose to learn new things, explore a new game with the kids, try a new yoga routine, go out for a walk on a new route, spend some time with yourself, read a chapter, sketch a picture, water flowers, declutter a drawer. Each activity brings a change in perspective and lets us rest from the day’s work and recharge while getting closer to our goals.

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Ride the uncertainty

waveTo be resilient in the face of changes, one must let go of the need to cling to familiar and give in to uncertainty of life. Just as with good sex or a good birth, feel the rhythm, follow it, listen to your senses, and ride that wave. Let go and you’ll be more in control and feel more pleasure from the process than if you try to resist the flow. You cannot control life circumstances. You can control how you respond to changes and integrate them into your life.

Those of us who have experienced birth know that you cannot control what your body does to birth the baby. You prepare and plan as much as you can, and when the baby is ready, you let your body take over and guide you. For me, birth has been the ultimate surrender — I have embraced the loss of uncertainty and have focused on riding the waves that brought me to the shores of motherhood. The two days I birthed my two children are the days I’ve felt the most alive in my entire life.

Not surprisingly, the willow tree, with its ability to bend with the wind, without breaking, often serves as an empowering image for weathering the storm of uncertainty and changes. Women often recite the following poem at Blessingways to share with the mama the need for flexibility during labour:

I am a willow tree,
Strong, yet fluid
graceful.
I can bend with the wind,
but my roots are tough,
indestructible.
Opening to birth my child
is flowing with the wind:
from a soft and gentle breeze
to a stormy gale
back to a soft and gentle breeze.
My body is strong, but flexible.
It is my friend, it knows how to open.
I am a friend to my body
eating well, walking, and loving myself.
I shall birth safely, freely, openly…
among my loved and trusted ones.
I am the willow, flexible
beautiful resilient
endowed with the power of surrender
to the wind rustling through my leaves,
my branches.
My roots reach deep into Mother Earth
Anchored in Her strength
I bring forth life
In joy!

(I do not know the author)

In Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, one of the senior witches, Granny Weatherwax speaks about the importance of knowing exactly who and where you are. “She [granny] was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn’t.” She enters the realm of Death and, surrounded by a multitude of mirror reflections of her, faces a question — which one is the real Granny Weatherwax. She pauses to ask “Is that a trick question?” and, looking down at herself, confidently states, “This one.”

If you know who you are with solid certainty, once you find your centre within the new reality, you can then build more supports to get established anew. You can find your comfort zone and enjoy the calm, keeping in mind the need for flexibility, come the new gale. A good balance of comfort and certainty on one hand, and flexibility and uncertainty on the other, is essential for an exciting journey that does not result in the mountain of stress crushing you, or in the loss of interest in life that has become a rigid routine.

As a personal example, my family is currently going through several major changes at once: we are moving (which, with two small children, is not for faint-hearted), switching jobs and office locations, nurturing a teething baby and a child with a cold, welcoming guests from out of town, and planning and planting a garden.

To weather this with minimal stress while remaining a strong family unit, we have focused on what we can control:

  • leaving plenty of time for packing and moving fragile items and books before the main furniture move;
  • setting a separate day to move the garden soil, permaculture towers, and shrubs that need replanting;
  • making sure to spend lots of time with the children to alleviate their stress and involve them in the move;
  • planning a menu, cooking and freezing meals in advance to ensure we do not fall back on poor food choices due to lack of cooking time or supplies.

For the unknown factors, we leave ourselves open to improvisation, pull in resources as needed, and make sure to breathe deeply when things don’t go as expected, to find solutions from a calm state of mind.

Take care of what you can control, bend like a willow with the wind, and embrace the uncertainty.

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Choose to leave negativity out of your life

dandelion

We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. Stress is often multiplied by internal dialogue, self-blame and vivid imagination, painting detailed pictures of what can go wrong.

Events are neutral — they happen. It is the way we perceive them and react to them that becomes our reality. If you are stuck in traffic on the way to work and are running late, it’s just that — you will be there later than anticipated. You could accept it as a given and resolve to leave the house earlier to avoid this situation in the future. Or, instead, you can sit in the car seething at the red lights and the drivers in front of you, all the while imagining how angry your boss is going to be, how you will certainly get fired, which will force you to sell your car and have to resort to begging on the street for a piece of bread.

Chances are, when you arrive, at most you shall receive a reprimand. More likely, no one is going to care what time you came in. Yet your brain will have you believe that you have lived the frightening reality of being left without a job. That will set the stage for the rest of your day.

These stressful responses to everyday situations accumulate and taint your ability to be calm, reasonable, productive, and happy. When you are faced with a less-than-optimal arrangement (and we all go through plenty of those on a regular basis), take a deep breath, identify what upsets you and choose to react to it in a constructive way. If you are stuck in traffic, you can listen to music, sing, think of pleasant plans in the near future, or plan your next errand. If you are stuck in the car with kids, you can play a word game, sing, recite short poems, look for red cars around you, count trees or houses, or find another way to use this time for bonding.

Control your exposure to other people’s negative thoughts and emotions — layered on top of your own, at a stressful time, they are likely to overwhelm your ability to effectively mitigate stress and can lead to sleep disturbances, interfere with effective functioning of your digestive and immune systems, slow down your mental responses and land you into more stress than before. Plainly put, you will get more sad and sick if people surrounding you are sad and sick. And when we are sick, we are no help to anyone until we take care of ourselves.

Choose not to attend events or meet with people that you know will trigger a strong stress response. This does not mean avoiding friends that are having a hard time. It means knowing when you can be a helpful listener and when you cannot. If you have overwhelming levels of stress in your life, you will only mirror your friend’s negative emotions by getting more frantic, upset, angry, or depressed yourself. All of that will get projected back at your friend, growing the negativity as a snowball that can engulf both of you.

You can still help by providing a meal, helping out with kids, or doing something that will be of assistance to your distressed friend, but will not involve a lot of interaction. In many situations, it is the chores and responsibilities that aggravate the stress and get in the way of recovery, so taking on some of those responsibilities is a good way to help. Other people can lend your friend a shoulder to cry on — it does take a village to help. On your part, while you are making a meal, doing laundry, washing dishes, or helping your friend with some other chore, your mind can detach from the immediacy of your own stressful reality.

For those of us with strong empathic nature, the intensity of any negative emotion is reflected and multiplied. We take on other people’s emotions and feel them as our own, so we collect even more negativity (and positivity as well) from around us and integrate it into our lives. We end up living our own stresses manifold.

To limit your exposure to negativity, control your atmosphere, including the music you listen to, the films you watch, the people with whom you interact, the news you watch, and the newspapers, magazines, and books you read. You know what triggers you — do not expose yourself to it unnecessarily. There are external stimuli aplenty to keep you on your toes.

If you feel that your negative emotions have reached overwhelming levels, step back, assess the situation and get some rest. Switch the activities in which you engage: garden, instead of watching TV; do a puzzle or play a board game, instead of reading a newspaper; go to a park with kids for some fresh air and free play, instead of browsing Facebook and soaking up other people’s frustrations. Remove irritants from your environment, be that light or noise pollution, frequent interruptions, or furniture getting in the way. Step outside, take a deep breath, get a massage, meditate, listen to some calming music, play an instrument, play with a pet — find something that takes your mind off the stress, and the solutions to your challenges might just come to you, once you are rested.

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Zen Transition to Motherhood for Kindle

Stress is bombarding us every day in the form of external demands and internal pressures, and unless we learn to control the way we respond to stress, it can seriously affect our mental, emotional, and physical health. There are many aspects of family life that compete for our attention, and introduction of a new dependent human being into the mix tends to throw us off balance. Productive Zen Mama approach is to help women enjoy their time with the new baby, while efficiently running a household, having time to rest, exploring personal projects, and feeling fulfilled.

Zen Transition to MotherhoodMy book Zen Transition to Motherhood is now available on Amazon. It looks in detail into the early weeks after the baby’s birth, with resources to let the new mama rest and recover after the birth, and tips on how to set up a meal train, address mama’s and baby’s health challenges, good supplies to have on hand, and ways to relax and enjoy this time. The second part of the book goes into practical matters of harnessing the new routine, getting chores under control, mastering errands with the baby, and handling commitments. The book also includes many ideas for entertainment and rest.

You might pick up this book while you are pregnant or shortly after you give birth. At its core there are gentle parenting principles and a common sense approach to reality.

Read it on Kindle:

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Resolutions? Try something new!

January is the month for the New Year resolutions. This year, resolve to try something new, often.

We get so bogged down in routine that on a rare occasion we surface for air (during holidays or a vacation), we often realize how monotone our life is. We work, we take care of children, we cook, clean, run errands, and manage to get out for an evening once in a blue moon. In all these chores and commitments, we often lose the sense of being alive. I absolutely love the following picture, not sure who to credit for it:

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This time of year when you think on what is important to you, ask yourself whether you have become caught up in the drudgery of existence. Have you lost the sense of wonder you had as a child? How adventurous are you in your day-to-day life?

There is a great song in the Russian version of The Three Musketeers called Pourquoi pas? (Why not?). When someone suggests a seemingly-outlandish activity, don’t ask yourself “Why would I do it?”, ask “Why not?”  Why not try something new? The longer we are entrenched in our routines, the more reluctant we become to step away from the familiar and into an experience that might lead us in an unknown and exciting direction.

I can hear someone say, “What if the activity is risky? Say, someone is inviting me to jump off a plane or do something else that is far out of my comfort zone.” Realize that everything in life has risks — stepping outside is risky, getting behind the wheel of a car is risky. Nothing is risk-free. What we need to consider is the trade-offs and the level of risk we are comfortable with. For some people, jumping off a plane is hardly more adventurous than the bungee jump they did last week. For others, having a spicy Thai dish for dinner is too far outside of their comfort zone. Yet for others, taking a vacation abroad is new, unknown, and fraught with risks. Think of the possible consequences of your choice, weigh the probabilities, and make your decision accordingly. You don’t have to place your life in significant danger to have fun.

bamboo-bridge
Start small – try making a new dish for dinner or a new craft project with the kids. Try a new way home, a new yoga routine, a new dance. Never ice-skated? Try it this winter — even if you don’t end up doing flawless pirouettes on the ice, you might enjoy the exhilaration, and your kids will love the family experience. Come play at a drum circle, try a jigsaw puzzle, pick up a new musical instrument, or try painting. Try a new position in sex, pick up a new hobby, discover a new band, make an effort to meet someone new or get to know one of your acquaintances better. As a baby setting out on their first wobbly-legged exciting and frightening three-step journey, let go of the well-known stable reality and experiment. You always have a safe base with its comforting routine to return to.

Challenge your identity. If you think of yourself as a housewife, you will behave differently than if you think of yourself as a career woman or a stay-at-home-mom, a goddess or a fitness guru. Try things that lie outside of “your main role” and see how your perception of yourself changes. Even if you don’t end up particularly enjoying the experience, you will learn more about your world and about yourself.

In addition to trying out a new activity, consider the tasks you complete day after day. Can you find new and better ways to accomplish what you need while having fun, or ways to optimize your actions leaving more time for you to do what you would rather be doing? Break the mould and seek a new approach. After all, you can always go back if there is no way to improve on your current process. If you are struggling with changing specific habits, you might discover it’s easier to change the undesirable patterns in your life by introducing small changes.

Part of the New Year’s resolutions is making changes in your routine — to spend more time with the people who matter, to take care of your body, to complete planned household projects. Don’t throw away the routine, just resolve to try something new, say, once a week. Seemingly a little change, it will give you over 50 opportunities over the next year to discover new possibilities. How many new things have you learned this past year? Life is short — spice it up with new experiences.

Pourquoi pas?

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Vary the intensity

Vary the intensity of activities to maximize productivity and balance out work and rest.

Productive Zen Mama - Vary the IntensityJust as effective exercise alternates short bursts of intensity with periods of rest to achieve the best results, so does alternating quiet and intense, mental and physical, prescribed and free-form activities result in higher overall productivity and satisfaction with your reality. How often have you felt that after 4-6 hours of doing the same thing your mind and body are exhausted and yearning for being engaged in a different task? Your problem solving ability plummets, your irritation threshold becomes very small, and your entire being protests the monotony. When I was growing up, I was told: “Switch up the type of activity, and it will feel like rest”. I’m finding this very true as I have to juggle work, childcare, cooking, running a business, and completing various types of projects. When you’ve been programming for 8 hours, an hour of cooking or beading might feel like rest, and vice versa.

If you look at it on a daily scale, alternate cooking, work, taking a walk (to get lunch, to run an errand, to get fresh air, to distract the baby, to get up and move), doing home chores, gardening, tidying up, taking a shower, having a snack, doing a yoga or exercise routine, playing with kids, reading, and sleep. As an example, if you have the flexibility, grab a shower and have breakfast, do a couple of hours of work, followed by tidying up the kitchen and stretching or dancing for 10 minutes, followed by another hour of work, followed by a brisk walk outside, have something to eat, do more work, set dinner to cooking, followed by work, playing with kids, etc. You can tweak it as your time, schedule, appointments, and time with children allows, but let yourself stop doing whatever it is you are doing if you are mentally or physically tired of it. You are not producing optimal results at that stage, and your time is better spent elsewhere. While cooking, playing, or sleeping, you might come up with a solution to a problem that has baffled you when you were staring at it at your workplace.

There is, however, one exception to the switching up the activities: if you are in the state of flow (or “the zone”), you won’t want to stop. The flow happens when we are immersed in solving a problem or performing a task and everything comes naturally, the solution just flows through us and materializes. Poets refer to it as their Muse visiting. Do not interrupt the flow — you won’t want to anyway, likely you won’t even notice the time passing. If you have appointments, make sure you do set alarms that will (unfortunately) pull you out of the flow, otherwise you might miss them, being so engrossed in the task at hand. For most mothers with children at home, the flow is a very rare state, however, so clearing out the distractions and using up short intervals of time available are key.

Where varying the intensity becomes even more powerful, is a weekly scale. During a typical week, try to alternate periods of work, socializing, quiet rest and contemplation, play time with the kids, cooking and family dinners, time to garden, exercise, bathe, read, spend time with your partner, regroup and plan. All of these have different levels or mental and physical involvement, allowing you to vary the extent to which your body and mind are engaged.

I like doing the following mental exercise: imagine comfortably sitting cross-legged on a cushion, in the middle of circle of singing bowls, with sunlight streaming through the window beside you. Each bowl is a part of your life: work, relationship with your partner, relationships with your children, relationships with your parents and siblings, relationships with friends, your mind’s peace, your body and health, your business, and so on. If you have spent some time with your children recently, the note played by your “relationships with children” bowl is clearly ringing, filling your universe with joy. If you have not spent much time with your partner lately, the note from that bowl is barely audible. Listen to each bowl in turn and see which sounds are fading. Over the week, try playing each bowl so that it sings pure and strong in your universe, and so that together all the notes are sounding in beautiful harmony.

We all know that we need a day of quiet rest after a loud party filled with people, music, and interaction. We enjoy lazy weekends after a long week filled with work. And we often long for some adult time after spending many hours with children, only to realize when we  come home that we need to hold the baby right now! At any point during your day when you are not feeling fulfilled or productive, stop and think whether your time would be better spent elsewhere, and if you can — switch the intensity or type of activity, even if for fifteen minutes. You can come back refreshed and with better ideas on how to approach your initial task.

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Zen Transition to Motherhood – Is there life after birth?

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.
— William Ross Wallace

Zen Transition to MotherhoodFor over three years, I have attempted to consolidate the bits of knowledge pertaining to the first year of the baby’s life: the challenges faced by the mama after birth, the baby care tips, the profound shift in perception of reality, coming into the new identity, and rebuilding daily routines around the new family structure. This year I have finally decided to put it into the form of an e-book, in hopes to help other mamas transition into this new phase of their life in a peaceful, loving way.

You might pick up this book while you are pregnant or shortly after you give birth. At its core there are gentle parenting principles and a common sense approach to reality. The key to productive zen is being present and enjoying the journey, and the book covers a variety of strategies for a smooth, peaceful babymoon and fourth trimester.

Stress has been shown to impact our health and ability to enjoy life. Stress is bombarding us every day in the form of external demands and internal pressures, and unless we learn to control the way we respond to stress, it can seriously affect our mental, emotional, and physical health. With the changing hormones and powerful emotions around the time of birth, we are so very vulnerable as new mamas — we need to find a way to get centered, to be present in each moment for ourselves, our babies, and our families.

In the book, I look in detail into the early postpartum weeks and discuss resources to let mama rest and recover after the birth, how to set up a meal train, address mama’s and baby’s health challenges, good supplies to have on hand, and ways to relax and find your center. The second part of the book goes into practical matters of harnessing the new routine, getting chores under control, mastering errands with the baby, and handling commitments. I also suggest many gentle ideas for entertainment and rest, so that we do not only feed our body, but feed our creative selves as well.

I hope that this book serves as a grounding, centering companion for new mamas. The book Zen Transition to Motherhood – Is there life after birth? is available for free at ProductiveZenMama.com.

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We cast. Hands empty, we wait.

In the early days of my relationship with my partner, he gave me a book to read. It was called “Faded Sun”, by C.J. Cherryh. I have since read many of her works, and she has become one of my favourite science fiction authors. However, “Faded Sun” has a special place in my heart, as one humanoid species in it — mri — have articulated a key principle I have harnessed in my life. The mri play shon’ai — the passing game. They sit in a circle and pass objects to each other, in no particular order, by throwing them. Warrior cast plays with knives, whereas other casts play with stones or wands. The objective is to catch the object thrown to you and pass it along, always being ready to catch and pass the next one.

“One plays shon’ai,” said Niun, “to deserve to live, to feel the mind of the People. One throws. One receives. We play to deserve to live.
We cast. Hands empty, we wait. And we learn to be strong.”
Faded Sun, C.J. Cherryh

This metaphor for life is very close to my heart, even more so for our life in this information age, where there are so many things coming our way on any given day and we need to process, deflect, absorb, enhance, and pass the information on. The best way, I find, is to take it as it comes, calmly, not losing concentration on what is important, and let go of the attachment to the result, to receive and cast without fear or hesitation, and wait for the next thing to come our way.

We cast. Hands empty, we wait.

In childbirth, we can have the best plan of how we would like things to go, yet we must not hold on to the “perfect birth” idea, as every birth unfolds in its own way. All we can do as challenges come up is make decisions that are consistent with our research and understanding, choose the course of action we believe to be the best, and let go of the outcome. If we make each decision in agreement with our values, the outcome will be the best it can be for that particular birth.

In work, we can attack a given task as it needs doing, do our best, and cast it into the world. We are then ready to receive the next task, holding no attachment to the outcome of the previous task. We do our best at anything thrown to us (in the game of shon’ai doing anything less might mean death) and send it out into the world. We don’t dwell on it until it comes back, at which point we do our best once more, before sending it on.

In parenting, we make decisions every day. We choose how to address a tantrum, what to feed the child, how to dress them for a given environment, how to stimulate the child’s development, what game to play, what book to read, what song to sing, what routine to try. Every decision is the universe’s way of throwing a challenge at you and make you choose what you will do. Once the decision is made, the action performed, you don’t have a chance to undo it. You move on and wait for an opportunity to do it again, differently if you so desire. With the changing needs, personality, and developmental capabilities of a child, the only way you can effectively parent is to not accept an illusion that something that works now will work the next time you try it. Instead, you pick a solution every time a challenge presents itself, with full knowledge that you can get a completely different result than you did the time before.

We cast.

This means not lingering when making a decision. It means using all of your strength, resources, and current knowledge to address the issue and to move on without regret. You’ve picked a path, now you can walk it until the next crossroads, where you can pick your way once again.

Hands empty, we wait.

This means no fidgeting in the meantime and second-guessing yourself. This means being at peace with your past decisions. You cannot change the past. You do not look back  — you wait until a chance presents itself to act in the present. Meanwhile, you wait in peace.

We cannot possibly hold in our mind every challenge that needs a decision in our future. (That’s what time planners and calendars are for.) We would drive ourselves mad trying to remember everything that’s going on in our life on any given week. The key is to realize that the only thing that matters at any given moment is what we are doing at that moment. Be fully present for what you are doing now. We need to be ready for future challenges, yet we should not dwell on the past ones.

To be mri is to play the Game, its player-to-player, hand-to-hand passing rhythm “as old as time and as familiar as childhood.” To play the game is to cast oneself — one’s fate — forth from the hand, to let go, to make the leap forward freely, and without fear.
The Faded Sun Trilogy, a review by Charlene Brusso

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How to do a jigsaw puzzle

In this post, I will share some strategies I use when puzzling to make the experience more pleasurable. To be clear, I do not puzzle for speed, I puzzle for zen: to relax, breathe, and get lost in the sensory experience, combined with a good story via an audiobook. Thus these tips are not necessarily going to speed up puzzle assembly, but will keep things organized for smooth progress through the puzzle.

As an example, I will use the photos of the Autumn Foxfire 1000-piece puzzle.

Step 1. If you want to relocate the puzzle at some point (say, if you do not have a dedicated puzzle table, and would need to have it cleared between puzzling sessions) or to glue it after completion, set up your space with a large sheet of cardboard. It can serve as your assembly surface that can be moved elsewhere between sessions: under the bed is a good place that rarely gets disturbed. It can also provide a background for the complete puzzle if it is to be glued. I usually use black sheets from a dollar store. One of those can fit a standard-sized 1000-piece puzzle. Be sure to check the puzzle picture and position the sheet appropriately for a horizontally- or a vertically-oriented puzzle.

Step 2. Set up your reference picture (either the puzzle box or the insert/poster) in a place that is easily accessible and spread out the pieces on the piece of cardboard.

Foxfire puzzle - clean slate, med

Step 3. Flip the pieces face up and separate them into groups based on colour, texture, or particular structures depicted on the picture. Those can go into heaps, as table space is usually limited. Keep the border pieces separate, preferably laid out so that the flat sides of all of them are facing the same direction. It will make for easier border assembly. The border pieces can be laid out on the cardboard sheet since they usually would be assembled first. Place the 4 corner pieces aside as they will likely be the most obvious to place.

Foxfire puzzle - pieces separated start, med

Note that some puzzles have a thick border or a uniform colour along the edges, making it harder to assemble the border. In that case, I would suggest placing the border pieces off to the side of the sheet, so that the inner parts of the puzzle can be assembled on the sheet without the border pieces getting in the way. They can then be brought in at a later stage, once the inner puzzle defines their placement.

Foxfire puzzle - pieces separated half way, med

You might want to skip this step – I rarely do. It makes for a much more enjoyable puzzling session as you can work on similar pieces together and spend less time searching in vain for that one last missing piece of a given colour or structure.

Foxfire puzzle - pieces separated, med

Step 4. Assemble the border. Combine together the pieces that clearly fit. You will end up with several clusters of the border which then can be put together based on the puzzle picture.

Foxfire puzzle - border pieces, med

Foxfire puzzle - border assembled, med

Step 5. Take the brightest batch of pieces, or the smallest similar batch, or the one that clearly connects to the border. Pieces composing large letters, bright flowers, clocks, building details, windows, etc. are good candidates. Assemble the batch and place it approximately within the border frame, or connect it to the frame if possible. A few pieces will likely be left over if similar colour exists elsewhere in the picture. If you have space, set them out in a grid outside the cardboard sheet – that will make those pieces easier to find later.

Foxfire puzzle - border and first batch, med

Foxfire puzzle - first batch placed, med

Step 6. Take the next batch of pieces and repeat. After it’s done, revisit the pieces you put aside and see if you can place any of them.

Foxfire puzzle - fox, med

Step 7. Batch by batch, you will complete the puzzle.

Some of the easiest regions to assemble are:

  • those that are small and uniquely coloured or textured;
  • in puzzles with humans or animals, bright garments or colouring;
  • horizontal guides such as the border between land and sky, water and land, water and sky;
  • curved horizontal guides such as the border between mountains and sky, tree line and sky, tree line and mountains, buildings and mountains, roof and sky, roof of one building against a wall of another;
  • vertical guides such as tall plants, building corners, pillars, masts, and so on;
  • in puzzles with water, direction of the ripples on the water can tell you which way to place the piece;
  • in puzzles with reflections, the part of the picture which has a reflection and its reflection will have similar colours but the reflection will have a washed out texture.

Foxfire puzzle - arches, med

The more of the puzzle is assembled, the easier it is to place the remaining pieces, as there are fewer places into which they may fit. Thus it is easiest to start with the simplest regions.

Foxfire puzzle - dark chocolate, med

Foxfire puzzle - patches, med    Foxfire puzzle - blue, med

Closer to completion, when in doubt, permutation is your friend. Say you have 10 blue pieces left to be placed: try one in all the possible spaces. If it fits, continue on to the next one, else put it aside. I would not try it over a large incomplete area, or in a puzzle with poorly-fitting pieces (as in extreme cases you can’t tell whether the piece fits even after you have placed it). This strategy is often helpful with pictures containing large uniformly-coloured regions, such as sky and washed out clouds.

Foxfire puzzle - sky patches, med

Step 8. Once the puzzle is complete you can glue it to the sheet if you like. I usually leave some margins if the size of the puzzle allows. Puzzle glue is usually either transparent or white that dries to transparent. It is applied over the top of the puzzle and it seeps in between the puzzle pieces anchoring them to each other and to the surface on which they reside. Depending on the quality of the glue, you might have to apply two coats (waiting for the first coat to dry fully before applying the second one).

Once the puzzle has been glued from the front, it is sometimes necessary to glue the puzzle to the sheet. This at times happens with especially well-fitting pieces, such as Sure-Lox, as the narrow gaps are not letting much glue to reach the sheet. I use white school glue to at least secure the puzzle perimeter to the sheet. I then apply weight (heavy books work well) along the perimeter and leave the puzzle for a few hours to fully set. Sometimes the puzzle glue warps the puzzle a bit, so the weights help in flattening it.

Autumn Foxfire, med

Step 9. You can frame your puzzle if you like. It is hard to find a cost-effective frame for most of the large puzzles, but if you find one or can make it yourself, that’s great. If you want to hang your puzzle on the wall without a frame, I suggest first flipping the puzzle and applying sticky tape (such as shipping tape) all around the perimeter of the back. If the puzzle is larger than 500 pieces, I also make a cross with the tape on the back of the sheet. It strengthens the places where anchoring tape will be attached and prevents the sheet from tearing when the tape is taken off.

Puzzle: Collage Living RoomI then take pieces of tape, wrap them into rings with the sticky side outwards and place them all around the puzzle perimeter: the bigger the puzzle, the more of these I use. Depending on the humidity level in your dwelling, the puzzle might warp somewhat, and the more sticky rings of tape are holding it to the wall, the better. I found that when the puzzle is taken off the wall, good tape leaves little trace if any. Poster mounting double-sided sticky squares can be used as well, but they might be hard to remove if needed.

 Puzzle: Collage BedroomAfter enjoying the assembly of your beautiful puzzle, you can use it as a decorating piece. Puzzles of fantasy or fairy tale scenes are great for children’s rooms and creative studios, architectural puzzles make for good living room and hallway decoration, calm landscapes or sensual gothic compositions work well in the bedroom, and food or wine nature morte paintings can liven up the kitchen. Some people even laminate a combination of many puzzles to make them into the kitchen floor. May your inspiration and imagination be your guide.

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